Story last updated at 11/11/2009 - 11:53 am
SITKA - You don't need to see Don Sineti to recognize him. His voice cuts through the air like a melodic foghorn, bringing with it salt-crusted tales of toil on the sea.
Jackie DiGennaro, a science teacher at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School, remembers Sineti from a field trip to a maritime museum village called Mystic Seaport she took while in graduate school in Connecticut.
"I was walking with a friend when I heard this beautiful voice rolling over the water from a big ship, and I thought, 'Wait, I know that voice,'" DiGennaro said. When the ship docked, DiGennaro found Sineti.
"I said, 'Hey, sea shanty man, were you at Verstovia Elementary last year?'" DiGennaro said.
Sineti had been in Sitka as he has been every November for the last 12 years as a participant in Sitka WhaleFest. Sineti sings and plays his banjo for various events, displays his drawings of marine animals and leads a squid dissection as part of the Scientists in the Schools program sponsored by Sitka WhaleFest.
The dissection is an activity young Sineti would have undoubtedly enjoyed.
"Animals have always had great appeal for me, but I really liked big animals-dinosaurs, rhinos, hippos, whales," he said.
The 1960s brought a revival of traditional folk music that also caught Sineti's attention.
"You could turn on a pop station on the radio and you would hear songs by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary actually competing with Elvis for the top spot," Sineti said. "And I really liked it a lot."
He especially liked pieces that were new renditions of old sea songs.
In 1968 Sineti returned from military service in Vietnam with a strong desire to contribute something positive to the world. He joined a movement to save one of his favorite animals from childhood-the whale-from extinction by overfishing.
He played his banjo and concertina to folk-loving crowds on the weekends and built homes through the week. He began playing at festivals including the Sea Music Festival at Mystic Seaport. There he met Stan Hugill from Wales, the man who would become his mentor and friend.
"He was the last actual working shantyman on large sailing vessels," Sineti said. "He is also credited with writing the single best book ever on the subject called 'Shanties From the Seven Seas.'"
Not to be confused with social sea songs, a shanty was an a cappella cadence tool used only for work and ended with the task completed. The shantyman was responsible for keeping the song going, sometimes for many verses.
"I say the first rappers were shantymen on these vessels," Sineti said. "And it was said that a good shanty was like having 10 extra men on the line."
A long recovery from a ruptured spleen rekindled Sineti's interest in another activity. Tired of TV and books, he returned to an old childhood hobby of sketching. And he drew what came naturally-sperm whales, bowhead whales and humpback whales.
Encouraged by Hugill, who saw a shantyman in Sineti, he left construction and accepted a job offer at Mystic Seaport. He was also contacted by a representative of Alaska Geographic, a non-profit publisher and bookstore which had, unbeknownst to Sineti, received some of his sketches. They wanted to use his illustrations in a whale book they were producing.
Performing sea songs at the Whales Alive festival in Maui he met Sitka marine biologist Jan Straley, who invited him to perform at Sitka WhaleFest.
"He seemed like he'd be a good fit," Straley said. "Plus he is like a walking billboard for the festival. He's just amazing."
So Sineti let the whale tide carry him from their Hawaiian winter grounds north to Alaska.
The difference Sineti sees between Sitka WhaleFest and similar events at which he plays is a focus on including the community. "They want the public to go to this event, and they keep it fresh to bring in a broader audience," Sineti said.
Sineti himself draws audiences of all ages. Perhaps it's the cadence of the sea songs or his melancholy bassoon pitch, but it hypnotizes listeners.
The bells ring at Keet Gooshi Heen, and the halls fill with kids wheeling toward freedom.
But one classroom holds fifth-graders who have just dissected a squid, who have plunged their hands into icy water wearing a blubber mitt, and who are now singing along with Sineti and DiGennaro. They are still singing as their teachers urge them out the door toward their busses. The students drag their feet, pleading instead to stay at school to listen to Sineti, the booming sea shanty man.
More information about Sineti and his schedule is available at http://crackerbarrel-ents.com/.
Jessie M. Waddell is a freelance writer based in Sitka. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.